Managing the mind: The culture of American mental hygiene, 1910-1950

Johannes Coenraad Pols, University of Pennsylvania


The National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH) was founded in 1909 through the efforts of Clifford W. Beers, a former mental patient, and Adolf Meyer, a leading American psychiatrist. The central mission of the NCMH was to develop measures that would prevent maladjustment and mental illness. To achieve these ends, the Committee vigorously encouraged the expansion of psychiatry's purview beyond the walls of the mental hospital. The NCMH's leaders and members considered the popularization of psychiatric insights one of its central missions, propagating the view that psychiatry could provide the scientific foundation for modern life. The NCMH's leaders, including medical directors Thomas W. Salmon, Frankwood E. Williams, Clarence M. Hincks, and George S. Stevenson, encouraged other professionals, among them social workers, psychologists, and teachers, to adopt a mental hygiene perspective. The NCMH was also of decisive importance for the professionalization of American psychiatry. Its leaders and activities played a central role in the shift of psychiatry's focus from institutional care within mental hospitals to psychotherapy and preventive activities based in community mental health centers. The attention of mental hygiene psychiatrists became increasingly directed towards well-adjusted individuals and away from the mentally ill. Despite its appearance of unity during the first two decades of its existence, however, the NCMH's history was characterized by tensions between a therapeutic perspective aimed at maladjusted individuals and a public health perspective aiming at preventing maladjustment in populations. Superintendents of mental hospitals tended to promote the former while child guidance psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists adhered to the latter. During the Depression, however, the mental hygiene movement fragmented and lost its influence. While psychiatrists in the post-World War II eras had adopted most of the ideas pioneered by the NCMH, the Committee by that point had lost its influence. In 1950 the NCMH merged with two other organizations active within mental health to form the National Association for Mental Health and ceased to be of influence.

Subject Area

Science history|Mental health

Recommended Citation

Pols, Johannes Coenraad, "Managing the mind: The culture of American mental hygiene, 1910-1950" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800914.